Dr. Sandy Richter looked out at the Westmont College Class of 2021 during Saturday’s commencement ceremony and asked them, “What is the deal with you people?”
“As I told my classes more than once, we need to get you off campus before the 10th plague hits,” she told them. “And then came COVID.”
In what seemed to be a breath of relief for the 306 students and the faculty and staff, Westmont College held its 2021 commencement ceremony in person at Thorrington Field at 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning. The ceremony allowed two guests per graduate, but was closed to the rest of the public. It was also live streamed on the website.
The commencement was complete with bagpipe fanfare, a Litany of Gratitude, student reflections, scriptures, hymns and, most importantly, diplomas.
“When I think about the Class of 2021, I can’t help but hear echoes of James Taylor’s immortal lyrics … ’I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end,’” said Dr. Richter, Westmont’s Robert H. Gundry professor of biblical studies who delivered the commencement address. She shared a few words on the book of Deuteronomy, referencing when Moses summoned all of Israel and re-recited the Ten Commandments.
“You have passed through this liminal space we call college, and this is the last step today,” Dr. Richter said, defining “liminal space” as a threshold, or “a physical space characterized by the transition, the in between space of who you were and who you will become.”
“Today is that day when you, the Class of 2021, ask the question, who am I now? And how do I point myself in the right direction to make sure I become who I know I am called to be?” Dr. Richter asked the class. “You have been gifted with so many precious big and small moments that have populated your liminal space here at Westmont … Your liminal space is over and it’s time to go.
“Like the Israelites, you come to this moment with everything you need, so as you go, beloved Class of 2021, dare I ask you Moses’ question: ‘Who are you going to be on the other side of the Jordan?’ I know I speak for everyone who is gathered here today, the people who have loved you with their lives — choose life. Choose life.”
Groups gathered in socially distanced circles in the field, and some 700 viewers tuned into the livestream. Honors were given to 124 of the students, including two veterans and four triple majors. In addition, the Dean’s Award, Dave Dolan Award, Kenneth Monroe Award, Faculty Scholarship Award, Bruce and Adaline Bare Outstanding Teacher Awards and the Faculty Research Award were all given to the winners.
Ron Werft, president and CEO of Cottage Health, received the Westmont Medal, and spoke to the partnership between Cottage Health and Westmont and how he hopes to see Westmont graduates working there.
“I am extremely honored and truly grateful to receive the Westmont Medal and to share here today in your very special moment,” he said to the crowd. “This is also very special because Westmont and Cottage have so much in common, from our commitment to our mission to a culture of respect to common core values that include excellence, integrity and compassion … Westmont saw something very special in you when you were admitted, and I know that they were right.”
Westmont President Dr. Gayle Beebe received a sweeping round of applause after saying, “There’s literally no class in the history of Westmont College who has endured so much to make it to this day.” The president referred to the devastating wildfires, deadly mudslides, social and political upheaval and the pandemic.
However, as the students celebrated their achievements, they made clear that they knew it made them stronger.
“I think there’s something to be said for being in the midst of rough situations in life and being able to see through the darkness and clouds and seeing and embracing the silver lining,” Chisondi Simba Warioba of the Class of 2021 said in his student reflection speech. “I do think there’s even greater strength found in being able to sit in the turmoil, accept the torrential storm and let your tears fall along with the pouring rain…
“We, the Class of 2021, indeed, have been shaken. I have been shaken. We remember the unsettling fear and worry in everyone’s eyes as the news of the oncoming fires was announced freshman year. We remember the deep, deep sadness that enveloped our hearts when hearing about those whose lives and homes were lost in the mudslides. Thereafter, we remember the shock and devastation we felt as our junior year was cut short and thousands were dying around the world due to COVID … It’s been a really tough time that I know each and every one of us have been shaped in ways that we never anticipated coming into college.”
Sharon Ko of the Class of 2021 said, “We were not shaken because God was right beside us.”